‘Top Chef’: An exhilarating, almost problematic, flurry of food and action

Sunday, March 22, 2020 - 6:57pm

NOSELL

NBC Universal

“I got people for that shit.” Abbreviating the phrase to PFTS, Kevin Gillepsie, one of the contestants in the new season of “Top Chef: All Stars,” says he has his own kitchen staff in his restaurants who perform the menial kitchen tasks that the contestants are now expected to perform on the show. For the show’s contestants, many of whom have their own restaurants, PFTS is the overarching sentiment of the new season — a competition filled with tasks resembling the kitchen grunt’s stress-filled trip down memory lane. 

You, the viewer at home, might use PFTS when you receive something that you personally dislike but know of others who would appreciate that item. The season premiere of “Top Chef: All Stars” is one of these items: an anxiety-inducing, tumultuous start that is occasionally problematic.

Competition cooking shows typically attract the enthusiastic, young and cocky journeymen and industry-hopefuls of the culinary trade. The current season of “Top Chef” provides a twist — allowing competitors (but not the winners) of previous seasons to claim their own Top Chef title alongside a cash prize of $250,000. The talent pool is particularly strong: Many of the competitors, after their initial losses on the show throughout the seasons have become celebrated chefs in their own right. Some, such as Gregory Courdet and Karen Akunowicz, have even earned the coveted James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. 

Yet much of the prestige and gravitas of these accolades is immediately stripped away with the season’s first Quickfire Challenge — a mise en place race of coring artichoke hearts, supreming oranges and deshelling almonds, a contest that will ultimately determine the composition of the three groups for the next round. As many of the contestants rush through the contest, the judges, in particular Tom Colicchio, critique the overall messiness of many of the contestants’ final products. Much of the critique focuses on several contestants’ rustiness toward preparing the ingredients on hand — the contestants who manage to create passable or even cleanly prepared final products do not get much time in the spotlight. Bravo’s editors instead choose to linger on those who create sloppy deliverables instead.

And then, as if on cue, comes the PFTS comment. Yet in the context of the Quickfire Challenge, you may find PFTS to be a flimsy, catch-all fallback to any shortcoming that a contestant may face throughout the remainder of the season. 

You’ll find there is little drama that unfurls among the contestants — something the editors at Bravo try to substitute with dizzying flurries of jump cuts and close-up shots of the contestants’ hands prepping their dishes. Most of the drama is a result of technical errors: Errors you might find unacceptable in the confines of your own home may become understandable in a restaurant or competition setting. Not splashing liquid oil on an open flame may seem like a no-brainer to many, but it can be easy to be oblivious when your fish fillets, meant to be served among the greatest culinary heavyweights, are aggressively sticking to the unseasoned beach grill.

If you are to be particularly discerning, you may bristle at both the show’s insidious labeling and defining of “Asian” cuisine. An “Asian” aioli called so only due to its usage of citrus juice and fish sauce, another “Asian” aioli spiked with miso, parmesan and a hibiscus ponzu are consumed by a judging panel, all of whom (aside from Padma Lakshmi) are not of Asian descent. For many of these sauces who are created by contestants who, aside from Lee Anne Wong and her miso aioli, are not East Asians and then subsequently are critiqued by a non-East Asian panel raises a subtle question. Who are the creative voices and talents who have the power and privilege to create, showcase and define East Asian ingredients, and who with power and privilege can judge these dishes and ingredients? These are heavy questions to consider, and not questions that a show with levity and American-centric ideals such as “Top Chef” can answer.

But ultimately, the “Top Chef” premiere offers an exhilarating peak of a show in which passionate culinary creatives continually hone their craft by competing amongst each other under the watchful eyes of Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons. This is the show you would recommend to those who enjoy watching the spectacles of action and conflict flash upon their screens.